What is Male?
Who is male and who is female?
It all depends on time and space, as my father told me just before he joined the ancestors last year.
“Akanbi,” he said, “you are my grandmother. I knew the moment you were born. Your face is an exact replica of hers. You returned masked as male. And now you disguise even more with your beard.” [He called me Akanbi, my Oriki].
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. Sometimes, as a baby, you would pull this frown, and I would think, ‘There goes grandma again,’” he continued.
“Interesting,” I responded.
“She was the head of the Ogboni in Apaara, Oyo, and had an Esu shrine constructed next to our main house. She made these meaningless paintings on the walls of the shrine.”
“Like the paintings I make now?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he responded. “My sister and I looked at what she was doing and thought it was senseless, and that belonged to the dead past. Because we were going to a Christian missionary school at that time, we thought she was going to die in hell if she did not give up all the devil worship she was practicing.”
“You were brainwashed, baba,” I responded.
He replied, “Our British missionaries taught us to shun people like my grandmother, burn their sculptures or throw them into the forests.”
“Did you burn her sculptures,” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he said. “But they all disappeared when she died. Some people in the neighborhood must have looted them. They probably sold them to the same missionaries who said these were devilish objects.”
“They tricked you,” I said.
“Now, we know better,” he responded. “We didn’t know the missionaries liked those sculptures. Whoever looted her shrine must have made some money.”
“It’s really not about the money, baba,” I said.
“That too,” he concluded. “I’m happy you are back. And you have now built these wonderful orisa shrines in Ile Ife. I feel better. And I hope you have forgiven me for looking down on you and your work when you were my grandmother. Now you have changed gender and returned as a man. Is that your strategy to gain more respect? In those days, before the advent of the missionaries, women had great powers. My grandmother was the leader of men and women in her community. Nowadays, things have changed, and men have the power.”
“Are you planning to die soon, baba?” I asked him. “I just don’t understand these things you are saying.”
“Certainly not,” he responded. “I’m only 90. When I make 100 we can begin to talk about death and coffins. Not now.”
“Just 100? That’s only ten years from now, baba,” I reminded him.
“I didn’t say I will go at 100,” he reassured me. “We can renegotiate that when we get there later.”
Less than two weeks later, I got the fateful call from home. He was gone.
He left me pondering, “What is male, what is female and what is not?”
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